The film Predestination was released in 2014 and brains melted down worldwide from its insane self-contained time loop.
An Australian science fiction film about time travel, it portrayed the ultimate Bootstrap Paradox: due to a mix of time travel and gender re-assignment the main character impregnates himself and then gives birth to himself.
The time loop depicted has no beginning and no end and the main character essentially comes from nowhere. He has to exist first to be able to exist but his existence is predicated on his own existence. It is a loop that never begins or ends.
He created himself. Yet he exists. That is a fact.
The Bootstrap Paradox is a paradox created when information, technology or even a person go back in time and provide the impetus to their own creation. The term came originally from the novella By His Bootstraps in which the main character, Bob, finds a book about time travel he then copies into a new notebook that he recognises is the one he originally found. Thus the book was never originally written.
Bootstrap paradoxes are one main reason that the multiverse theory of time travel was created. If each change made through time travel begets a new universe than paradoxes are eliminated. Things inside the loop therefore have an origin, it’s just that the origin is in its parent universe.
But for Dark, which concludes its final season this weekend on Netflix, the inhabitants of Winden are stuck in a self-contained time loop in a single universe and thus Bootstrap Paradoxes abound. The characters themselves are aware of many of these paradoxes and express as much confusion about them as we do.
The time machine that Jonas thinks will close the wormhole but actually helps to create it is built from blueprints sent back through time based on the completed machine itself in the future. As a consequence, the machine itself is never originally conceived and only works when its so-called ‘creator’ is able to see the future version of the machine.
The book Eine Reise Durch Die Zeit (A Journey Through Time) ostensibly written by the character H. G. Tannhaus was, he admits, copied by him from a version he got from the future. The original text was never written and yet it exists.
The same goes for the letter that Michael (Mikkel) supposedly wrote for Jonas before he killed himself. This letter was shown to Michael by Jonas who got it from Ines after Michael’s death. Jonas then gave it to his younger self who burnt it before receiving it again from Ines. But this means that – while Peter did himself write the letter – he was simply repeating text he’d already read. A text he’d never have known about if Jonas hadn’t gone back in time to try to talk him out of killing himself (thereby giving him the idea of killing himself) and shown him the letter in the first place.
But probably the show’s most interesting Bootstrap Paradox is the one that you almost don’t notice. That is the walking paradox that is Charlotte Doppler.
Season 2 of Dark stunned us with the revelation that Charlotte was born in the future from a union between the menacing and dogmatic Noah and Elizabeth Doppler, Charlotte’s own daughter. She was then sent back in time to be raised by H. G. Tannhaus, whom she saw as a grandfather.
Charlotte giving birth to her own mother is the kind of twist we’d come to expect from a show where its main protagonist, Jonas, discovered that – due to time travel – the girl he was in love with was genetically his Aunt.
But if you pull the thread of Charlotte’s existence a bit, you’ll start to realise that she is a walking Bootstrap Paradox. Her existence is contingent on her own travel into the past. Charlotte has to exist for Charlotte to exist.
Charlotte’s paradox opens up the possibility that the existence of other characters may be similarly fragile – temporally speaking. We already know that Adam wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t manipulated the younger Jonas into ensuring that Mikkel went back to 1986 (with Jonas finding himself stuck in a kind of Grandfather Paradox as a result).
But Adam ensuring his own creation is a much more subtle form of the Bootstrap Paradox than Charlotte’s, whose very birth is contingent on her being born. And that’s before we start asking more difficult questions about Peter Doppler like, “Who on Earth would have a child with Helge Doppler?” And other questions such as where Noah comes from in the first place.
The writer’s decision to introduce a second universe at the end of Season 2 was only part of the show’s genius. Only through the intervention of a new timeline could the loop possibly be broken. And yet with so much of the loop hanging upon paradoxes, I fail to see how it could be broken without the town’s very existence falling apart.
It’s possible that the whole of Winden’s history since at least the end of the 19th century is a giant Bootstrap Paradox. If that is the case then if the loop is finally broken, the town as we know it will never exist. The accident that destroys Winden is necessary for the time travel the inhabitants are using to try to stop the accident that makes time travel possible. Every time they travel they’re simply retracing the steps required to make the accident happen in the first place.
As a consequence, even if the accident that created the wormhole is prevented, the Winden that exists is so contingent on it that what appears in its place could be so radically different as to be unrecognisable. And that doesn’t seem like a happy ending for any of the characters we care about.
For now it’s a Gordian knot that I am personally excited to (hopefully?) see resolved.
Who will survive the very literal fallout?
We’ll soon find out.
Season 3 of Dark is now available for streaming on Netflix